Lawyers’ Corner: Domicile in Ortwine v Grange Ins Co of Michigan

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Where do college students really live? A student’s domicile can mean the difference between complete PIP no-fault benefits and a hurried Assigned Claims application.

When a college student gets hurt in a car or motorcycle accident, the question of who is a resident relative can get tough. Your client’s recovery rests on where the court decides the student has its domicile. A recent unpublished Michigan Court of Appeals decision, Ortwine v Grange Insurance Company of Michigan, reminds accident attorneys of the importance of domicile for a young adult’s PIP benefits.

A Motorcycle Accident Raises PIP Resident Relative Questions

On August 29, 2013, Faith Ortwine was riding to a family function with the man she identified as her father, James Thomas, on his motorcycle (he was her former step-father, officially). As they traveled from Faith’s mother’s home in Genesee County to a lake Oakland County, they came upon sudden heavy traffic. When the cars in front of him stopped quickly, James decided to “lay the bike down” to avoid a collision. But the bike hit a protrusion in the road, flipped over, and threw James and Faith from the bike.

As a result of the motorcycle accident, Faith suffered lacerations requiring stitches and staples, and appears to have suffered a traumatic brain injury. After the accident she suffered dizziness, nausea, vertigo, mood swings, and memory loss, resulting in a 3 month recovery period.

College Students Make Resident Relative Questions Difficult

Ortwine’s vehicle was insured on her mother’s policy, but she wasn’t a “named insured.” To get PIP no-fault benefits, her attorneys filed a claim with her mother as a resident relative. MCL 500.3114(1) says:

“[A] personal protection insurance policy . . . applies to accidental bodily injury to the person named in the policy, the person’s spouse, and a relative of either domiciled in the same household, if the injury arises from a motor vehicle accident.”

But because Ortwine was living in Florida while she attended college there, her claim was denied. In reviewing the case, the Michigan Court of Appeals had to decide whether Faith’s domicile was in Florida or with her mother in Michigan.

Factors in Determining College Students’ Domicile

As the court noted, “young people departing from the parents’ home and establishing new domiciles as part of the normal transition to adulthood and independence” can cause particular problems for courts. Traditionally, domicile has been based on certain factors including:

  • The Subjective Or Declared Intent Of The Person To Remain Permanently Or Indefinitely
  • The Formality Of Relationships Between Members Of The Household
  • Whether The Place The Person Lives Is On The Same Property, And
  • The Existence Of Other Residences Or Lodging.

But when college students and young adults are injured in auto accidents, Michigan courts have added to that list, including whether the person:

  • Still Uses Her Parents’ Mailing Address
  • Keeps Possessions With Her Parents
  • Uses Her Parents’ Address On Her Driver’s License
  • Has A Room Made Up In Her Parents’ House, And
  • Depends On Her Parents For Support.

But those factors couldn’t help Ortwine’s claim against her mother’s insurance policy. The court found that her domicile was in Florida with her boyfriend at the time of the accident, and not in Michigan with her mother. The court noted that Faith had:

  • Repeatedly Said She “Moved” To Florida And Was “Visiting” Michigan
  • Signed A Lease In Florida
  • Held Several Jobs In Florida
  • Attended College In Florida
  • Left Her Car And Pets In Florida When She Came To Michigan
  • Only Carried A House Key For The Florida Residence
  • Did Not Regularly Stay With Her Mother When She Came To Michigan, And
  • Considered Herself A Guest In Her Mother’s Home After The Accident.

All of those facts and circumstances led the court to believe that Ortwine’s domicile was in Florida.

Domicile and Intent to Permanently Remain

The court noted:

“The traditional common-law inquiry into a person’s ‘domicile,’ then, is generally a question of intent, but also considers all the facts and circumstances taken together.”

(quoting Grange Ins Co of Mich v Lawrence, 494 Mich, 490 (2013)). When it came to intent, Ortwine had testified that she “needed a change in scenery” so she moved to Floriday with her boyfriend to go to college. She was attending a community college at the time of the accident until she could qualify for in-state tuition at the University of Central Florida. If she didn’t qualify for UCF, she planned to move back to Michigan.

The court said conditional intent wasn’t enough to destroy Faith’s intent to permanently remain in Michigan. Instead, it held:

“This conditional intent makes it clear she did not consider Michigan, let alone her mother’s house, her true and permanent domicile.”

Representing College Students in Light of Ortwine

The court’s decision in Ortwine is a stark reminder for auto and motorcycle accident attorneys of the need to explore all the facts early in the case. Faith Ortwine was entitled to no-fault benefits, whether through her mother’s policy or the Michigan Assigned Claims Plan. But without a thorough investigation into this college student’s domicile, it wasn’t clear where the claim should be filed.

David Christensen is an auto and motorcycle accident attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He represents injured parties of all ages against auto insurance companies. If your client has a difficult no-fault issue, contact Christensen Law today for a referral.